November 1811 (210 years ago)
Richard Potter, the first successful stage magician in America, launched a stage act that included ventriloquism, hypnotism, and sleight of hand. Born in 1783 in New Hampshire to an enslaved African woman and a white man, Potter is regarded as America’s first Black celebrity. As a teenager, Potter trained in Europe as a gymnast and tightrope walker. On returning to America, he studied ventriloquism and toured with Scottish entertainers and brothers James and John Rannie. When Potter launched his own career, he became known for a trick where he climbed a rope and disappeared while surrounded by an outdoor audience. He could also throw knives and touch molten hot metal without being burned. His fame and success allowed him to purchase a 175-acre farm in Andover, N.H., just two years after his premiere. The land where his house and estate stood is known as Potter Place.
November 1921 (100 years ago)
On Nov. 14, playwright Susan Glaspell opened The Verge with the company she co-founded, the Provincetown Players, at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Considered an early American example of expressionist art, The Verge centers on Claire Archer, an amateur horticulturalist working to breed a new kind of hybrid plant. As her family and friends criticize and belittle the importance of her work, Claire “protests the confining forms of language, art, motherhood, and traditional relationships between people while expressing her desire for destruction,” according to an essay by Julia Galbus. Like the character she created, Glaspell experimented with form throughout the play. Some critics at the time were not impressed and found the play confusing, but feminist scholars have since demonstrated its artistic and political importance.
November 1931 (90 years ago)
Award-winning playwright, novelist, and short story writer Joan Cooper was born on Nov. 10 in Berkeley, Calif. When she began writing plays, Cooper, inspired by Thomas Lanier Williams’s adopted name “Tennessee,” became known as J. “California” Cooper. Cooper had a gift for storytelling that was encouraged and nurtured by writer Alice Walker. She was named Black Playwright of the Year in San Francisco in 1978 for her play Strangers.
November 1941 (80 years ago)
Actor and former professional boxer Canada Lee received rave reviews from the Chicago Defender while on tour as the character Bigger Thomas in Native Son, which had a post-Broadway engagement at Chicago’s Studebaker Theater in November. The play was adapted from Richard Wright’s novel by Wright and Paul Green. The production was a tremendous hit on Broadway before it embarked on this 19-month national tour. Lee, a veteran of the stage since the Federal Theatre Project, originated the role. His performance led to fame and to other opportunities on Broadway and in film. In 1946 he starred in and produced On Whitman Avenue, directed by Margo Jones. Lee’s Civil Rights activism, his refusal to cooperate with the FBI by informing on Paul Robeson, and the limited number of quality roles affected his ability to get cast in U.S. films. Lee died at 45, collapsing on the South African set of his final film, Cry, the Beloved Country.
November 1946 (75 years ago)
On Nov. 30, Anna Lucasta closed on Broadway. At the time, with 957 performances, it was the longest-running play to have played on Broadway with an all-Black cast, and it was certainly American Negro Theatre’s (ANT) most heralded play. Hilda Simms and Canada Lee (see above) were part of the original cast. Penned by Philip Yordan, the play was originally named Anna Lukaska and centered around a Polish American family (it was roughly modeled on Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie). Though she did not originate the role, Ruby Dee, in her first time on Broadway, played the lead character by the closing performance and went on the long-running national tour. Actress Alice Childress originated the role of Blanche and went on to write her own Obie Award-winning play, Trouble in Mind (now getting an overdue bow on Broadway) based on her experience acting in Anna Lucasta.
November 1996 (25 years ago)
Ellen Stewart decided to celebrate La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club’s 35th anniversary by presenting three revivals of work by Rhodessa Jones: I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine, The Legend of Lily Overstree, and Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women. All three works were collaborations with jazz instrumentalist Idris Ackamoor, Jones’s co-artistic director at the San Francisco-based Cultural Odyssey. The last in the series, Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women was developed out of Jones’s award-winning Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women and Women Living with HIV.
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